Ye Olde Finch
On the 11th and 12th of April 2008, there will be ‘Decentralised Day of Action for Squats and Autonomous Spaces’. UK social centres and spaces will for the first time have a visible opportunity to show their knitted and interweaving solidarity, a chance to demonstrate to those unfamiliar with the movement, that it is indeed an international interconnectedness of energy that means business. The very notion of the spaces themselves shapes them as autonomous from the dominant claw of capitalism, speculation and gentrification that percolate through our lives. The idea that each of these spaces can come together and display their linkages and histories in harmony, has great historical resonance, and one that could possibly determine a public catalyst for the future of the movement.
This piece aims to introduce what the decentralised days of action are all about and highlight the main reasons for organising such events. The purpose of the article is therefore to propose the days as a soldering opportunity for the social centre movement, and how positive this can be specifically for the UK scene.
Social Spaces – What are Social Spaces?
It is perhaps not entirely necessary to give a lengthy introduction to the spaces themselves, as there are many other articles within this booklet that will do this more than satisfactorily. However, it might be an idea to give a brief gloss over what these centres are, their history, and what they are in opposition to.
Social centres, or ‘autonomous spaces’, are communally-run buildings which are either occupied, rented or owned. Each of the spaces are run non-hierarchically by individuals on a completely voluntary basis. There are varying concerns that shape the make-up and activities within the centres, but these can be described as all propelled by premises of community-based activity, creativity, inclusion, and autonomy from the command of the dominant culture. They are basically there to serve the community in which the building has been located, alongside the beliefs of those that run the centres, and therefore the goals are moulded around the needs and wants of those that use the facilities within. Activities that take place within the spaces are very varied – I had a look on one space’s website the other day and there was a Foucault Reading Group. Whether you wish to entertain your philosophical delectations, utilise the free access to computers and the internet available, eat some delicious vegan food, attend the weekly meetings for the running of the centres, fix your bike at a bike repair workshop, or meet up with your local group cause in order to make plans for direct action – you can do any of these within the social centre community in the UK. Depending upon whether there is rising gentrification to be highlighted, local immigration issues or the very fact that the spaces may be contested in themselves through squatting, this is reflected in the activities and general ethos of the centres.
As for squats themselves, whether these are centres or general communal living spaces, these are of course buildings that are lived in and are neither owned, rented, nor do the occupants’ have express permission to reside there. In the UK, this is not a criminal but civil offence. Squatting takes place for many reasons, mainly for cheap housing, but can also be the symbolic contesting of a space, and a complete opposition to the capitalist machine of private property and speculation that forces individuals to squat in the first place. Check out the ‘Squatter’s Handbook’ which can tell you everything you need about squatting and the mesh of legality that goes with it.
And the History?
The form that social centres have taken over recent decades can be traced back to the 1970s and the Italian ‘Autonomia’ workerist movement that evolved out of social deprivation and the appropriation of disused factories and warehouses for communal living and general usage. This has spread throughout Europe, influencing the development of social centres in the UK today, and indeed those throughout the rest of the world. The heritage of the reclaiming of public space, the ‘commons’ themselves, can be found much further back in British history, to a group of radicalised landless commoners who occupied St. George’s Hill outside London in 1649. These were the ‘True Levellers’ or ‘Diggers’, and can be seen as the first ideological and symbolic re-appropriators of ‘enclosed’ land, in the words of leader Gerrard Winstanley, so that “…earth should be made a common treasury of livelihood to the whole of mankind, without respect of persons.”
And what are the spaces and squats opposing?
What can be said that squats and spaces are opposing, is indeed a myriad of things, however they all swarm around some central ideas and beliefs. Going back to the Diggers and the Levellers, you can see that the freeing of the commons is something that resonates now, in fact moreso, as we still have enclosures – we have privatisation. The idea that the planet is carved up into little segments, some bigger than others, and individuals own each of these pieces of the earth’s great crust, is the central issue of contention. The only manner in which this myth survives and flourishes today is due to capitalism – all social centres and squats can be described as anti-capitalist in one way or another. In order to remain ‘autonomous’ from this system of private property and unchecked accumulation, the land is taken back from being sold and exploited. This is becoming more and more obvious and integral to our daily lives, and it is not a local phenomenon. The global financial markets are all interlinked, the system of capitalism hinges and impinges right down to the individual, and back up again to the inter- and trans-national. This is why days that galvanise the social centres and squats together is so important – a global response to a global phenomenon.
The Solidarity Days
The decentralised days of action were proposed by a collective formed of representatives from the squatting and social centre scene throughout Europe and beyond, and convened to discuss the preliminaries of the actions at ‘Les Tannieres’ in Dijon, France, in the November of 2007. Whether or not you are involved in the activities and running of a self-managed centre in the UK, or are a follower of the movement, you cannot have avoided the almighty eviction of 1,000 individuals from the ‘Ungdomshuset’ free space in Copenhagen in the spring of 2007. The media coverage was not just that of the independent nature with regards to the eviction, as would normally be. The crack-down on squats and social centres that has taken place over 2007 has meant although the movement is increasingly repressed, so too is it more radicalised – hence the call that brought these days of action into being. As a UK–wide response to the call and Dijon, the ‘National Squatters Meeting’ was organised in Leeds in February 2008 to discuss what would be happening on the British scene. The meeting was rendered a great success and a great example of the movement gathering itself into action.
What is hoped to be achieved through these days of action?
There are roughly four objectives which the decentralised days hope to achieve. The first is to create more visibility for squats and spaces, particularly to demonstrate the political maneuvers and strengths that the movement holds as part of a global political resistance. The second is to develop and again, illustrate the links already there, between the squats and autonomous spaces – there are obviously differences in approach to the practicalities of space maintenance, and therefore this can been as an opportunity to meld these experiences together, and build upon the residing solidarity. This is what the creation of movements is all about. Thirdly, one of the most outstanding needs of the community is to spread its reach, and gather new people from new places, inspire and conspire on an international level in order to make the movement grow even bigger and in unexpected nooks and crannies. The fourth, is to make sure the oppressive measures that have been taken against squats and social centres, are overcome and kept at bay in the future.
What exactly will take place over the two days of action?
Dependent upon what is most appropriate for each space, for the needs of the local communities involved and for the objectives of the individual centres, the actions to take place on the days have been thought of with a number of discussion points in mind. The over-arching determination, however, is certainly to ensure all actions are as decentralised as possible. Perhaps one of the most important considerations is the very fact that discussion and skill-sharing can take place across the spectrum of occupied, rented and owned zones. Because of the many differing approaches that have been taken with regards to the hard work of organising and maintaining the spaces, there are therefore those that have failed, those that have been evicted, those that live on for decades. The swapping of experiences of living communally, the generating of alternative economic exchange systems, the various ways in which legal obstacles can be counteracted, and the bolstering of solidarity between “… different users of autonomous spaces … people without papers, activists, travellers, immigrants, urbanites, rural dwellers …” are some of the central points of discussion. Undeniably, what will be great significance with regards to the days, is the very questioning of what social centres can achieve for social change, and what kind of stance the movement as a whole wishes to manifest in the face of the remainder of mainstream culture, and that of the capitalist system. There are many centres that take a more confrontational approach than others, those that are not so radical, and therefore the days of idea-trading would be a wonderful opportunity for the centres to converge and learn from each other.
The very activities themselves could range from benefit-raising events such as street parties, to large and small scale occupations, to more direct action and protests in and around the confines of the squats and the spaces. Whatever, from the sublime to the spectacular, from a reading group to an occupation, as long as there is simultaneous action and solidarity.
So aren’t the UK spaces interlinked anyway?
The answer to this is ‘yes’. UK social centres and spaces have been interwined in cyberspace for a number of years through the ‘Social Centre Network’, a network hosted on the internet as a portal for all independent social and community centres in the UK. In their own words, their aim has been to link up the “the growing number of autonomous spaces to share resources, ideas and information”. The SCN was conceived of in order to cater for the growing number of legal social centres, alongside those of the squatted tradition, as the movement had clearly increased in pace over recent years. There is also a clear distinction between the kind of social and community centres that have been supported by the platform, and those that are state sponsored or of an NGO nature, that have not. There are local networks within the movement that operate both on a regional level, for instance the East London Network, and interlinking with the larger network hubs of the national. The community, both squats and spaces, are linked too by the Social Centre Network email list hosted by Riseup.net. However, not only has there been somewhat of an ‘official’ site and linkages for the autonomous zones, but there is a subtle, and yet at the same time, well-established interlinking in other forms over the internet. What has been of wonder and of such great impetus for the gathering of movements and causes across the world is of course the impact of the internet, not least its incredible influence in other arenas aswell. So not only is there a specific SCN, but so too are all the social centres, autonomous and free spaces and squats of all colours and creeds, connected through the links on their webpages. Quite what this network would look like if it were to be digitally mapped out – possibly resembling the construction of a movement – but it would quite clearly be a cyber-expression of the philosophy behind the days in April 2008. This is where the UK social centres can be clearly seen as part of a wider ‘electronic fabric of struggle’. The interconnectedness of the scene here is already alive and real, in its virtual format.
Not only have the social centres been connected between themselves, but so too have they been in touch with larger political objectives and projects through their involvement in and support of activist groups and causes. As an example, the London Action Resource Centre (LARC} has not only been a hub of independent information, but so too a meeting point for the likes of People’s Global Action and London Rising Tide. This adds further nodes to the spider-like web that the UK social centres have been part of all along, and indicates the relevance of action days such as those in April for the future reach of the movement. Such a force of connectedness can be found in the words of those who initiated the actions, in their call before the events: “We are motivated by the same passions, we feel the same determination, face a common enemy in repression, and are united across borders by our desire to build a world of equality and self-determination. As unaligned and ungovernable islands of uncontrolled freedom we want to continue to act in solidarity, and strengthen our international links, no matter how many kilometres there are between us”.
So what does all this mean for the UK social centre movement?
For the UK social centres, there are those representatives of autonomous spaces who attended the meeting that took place in Dijon, and those in Leeds in February, to plan the days. There were of course those who chose not to. There were possible points of conflict that might have arisen over the idea of such decentralised days. The fact that there was a collective that developed these ideas independently could be seen as a nexus of contention, the basic notions of non-hierarchical and disorganised organisation that pervade the social centre ethos as perceived as compromised. Not least, in addition, the fact that this is a step beyond the walls of the social centres, beyond the local community hubs that they provide for, may also be appreciated by some of the members of the UK community, as likewise with those of scenes across Europe and the remainder of the global autonomous and squatting community. These are issues that can be brought up over meetings in the future, and discussed in a democratic manner in order to achieve consensus on all levels.
So what does all of this mean for the UK social centre scene? As one of the richest heritages of alternative culture within Europe, the partaking in such a day is clearly an extension of this refreshing transgression. The differences that arise, undoubtedly, through the choice of space as occupied, rented or owned, are seen by a number within the community as divisive. This is very clearly a chance to display the bonds of solidarity and to solder the community together as a subset of a wider enterprise. The visibility is an objective, and judging from the continued vibrancy that is obviously being exuded from the UK scene, alongside the subversive, creative residue of the anti-roads movement and protests of the 1990s, the days are exciting sparks of momentum echoing from within four walls, onto the international stage. This can only be positive for the UK scene: the knowledge-sharing and networking ensuring the movement as an intrinsic cog in the wheel of the movement of movements.
Global T. A. Z.
There is a seminal work by Hakim Bey that influences the concept of the ‘autonomous zone’ a great deal. What Bey has termed as a ‘Temporary Autonomous Zone’ is perhaps the closest written formulation to be found that resembles the social centre phenomenon. A ‘T. A. Z.’ is “like an uprising which does not engage directly with the State, a guerrilla operation which liberates an area (of land, of time, of imagination) and then dissolves itself to re-form elsewhere/elsewhen, before the State can crush it”. This is quite a familiar description I suspect: the freeing of a building from the greed that keeps it from being put to good use – an oasis in the middle of a desert of avarice. Perhaps what stands out from these days of decentralised action is the idea of a temporary autonomous zone created on an international plane, one which could suspend the participants and the spaces in a consensus of resistance for a brief interlude. This is perhaps quite utopian but also proved possible through the days of action, and for days of similar inspiration in the future.